Sustainable fashion may be all the hype around the world today but, for Yara Yassin, co-founder and CEO of Up-Fuse, it was an emergency that needed addressing as early as 2013.
Maybe this early realisation had something to do with the fact that Yassin, who studied product design and social business between Egypt and Germany, spent seven months in a small village in Upper Egypt, working on empowering women living in remote areas. Determined to promote environmental awareness and convinced that change only happens when design and community collide, Yassin, along with co-founder Lama El-Khawanky, launched Up-Fuse out of Cairo in 2015.
In less than ten years, the DIY plastic bag recycling project became a globally successful company, helping upcycle 1,350,000 plastic bags into a range of products, including bags, shoes, and jewellery, and supporting more than 80 women artisans from the garbage city in Cairo - one of the most polluted cities in the world. Meanwhile, Yassin was recognised by the United Nations as one of the ten young women from around the world who help in a greener future and racked up top awards at the WeMENA competition and other World Bank events.
Turning hardship into successes
Yassin’s initial goal, originally, was to create a material and product that could make a meaningful impact while also ensuring the longevity and sustainability of her venture. “We felt like we could create a material and an easy product that spreads the environmental message and is profitable,” she simply says. However, today, she takes pride in the fact that not only is her company a success story, but nearly 80% of Up-Fuse’s products are made by women empowered by these new job opportunities.
Interestingly, this outcome might be the fortunate byproduct of initial setbacks: factories unwilling to take a chance on an unproven concept proposed by women without any prior business experience. Undeterred, Yassin and her team turned to NGOs that support women in different areas, offering them to provide vocational training focused on specific production processes around recycling and upcycling. This was quite a turnaround for Yassin who, so far, had not been too fond of non-profits. “I always wanted to create a business that is profitable so it can sustain [itself] and people would make money... It doesn’t make sense if no one is making a profit,” she explains, adding that, eventually, the resistance from factories turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “It was amazing that the factories gave us a big ‘No.’ Without that, we wouldn’t have created this solution and these environmental products.” Not to mention the new job opportunities and economic empowerment for underprivileged communities. Yassin says, “We want to create change and, at the same time, we really care about the environment. It’s inspiring that women from all around North Africa and the Middle East are helping us in producing our products and promoting our message.”
The global breakthrough
In the early years, Yassin jumped from incubator to accelerator trying to figure out how to market her product and streamline her processes. “I wasn’t that smart back then. I was only focused on either receiving money so I can produce, or receiving knowledge so I can produce,” she explains. The World Bank gave her her first big breakthrough in 2015 with a $50,000 grant that wasn’t spent in celebrations, but rather into something that Yassin had been told was impossible three years earlier: developing a custom machine that can turn plastic and rubber into malleable material easily used to design any retail or fashion product. “We started on a hard-working Philips iron machine. Then, we took the know-how of our workflow and collaborated with engineers to design our own industrial-sized machine that can deliver precise smoothness. We had to follow safety regulations but we could process more materials beyond plastics: car tires, glass, microplastics. My imagination was allowed to run wild,” Yassin says.
This innovation was a turning point for Up-Fuse. Production doubled, allowing the company to meet the growing demand for their products. Dedicated employees, who had previously focused on creating bags, were now able to apply their vocational skills to design their own apparels, not only diversifying Up-Fuse’s product offerings but also showcasing their creativity and talent.
This success, along with the exposure [from incubators] to many different markets and her winning of global competitions, gave her the boost she needed to move beyond Egypt, where sustainable entrepreneurship was relatively unknown and where her products were often reduced to their original material - trash.
In a global context ripe for sustainable fashion - this market reached almost $25 billion worldwide in 2020, in Yassin’s estimate - Up-Fuse finally caught the attention of NGOs and international corporations alike, leading to new partnerships around a shared commitment to sustainability and social impact. Yassin capitalised on these new opportunities to expand the company’s reach and growth regionally and internationally. “You see [upcycling] increasing obviously and vividly in leading markets like Europe, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. People now view [it] less as a luxury and more as a duty,” she says. Now present in Egypt, the UAE, and Europe, the company operates as both a B2C and B2B business, catering to private individuals, corporations, and even NGOs, many of which are incentivised to buy upcycled products for company events and giveaways.
With an increasing number of customers seeking sustainable alternatives, business was booming when the ultimate opportunity presented itself: the 2022 United Nations’ Climate Change Conference (COP27) held in Egypt in November. As an official supplier for all guests at the event, Up-Fuse cemented its position as a trusted provider of sustainable products in the country and beyond, solidifying its reputation and amplifying its impact.
Unsurprisingly, Up-Fuse is keen to join COP28 in the UAE, set to start in November 2023.